“Low end” training devices continue to add capability such as tactile cockpit controls, visual systems, motion and even virtual reality. Chuck Weirauch highlights some of the newer entrants to the market.

In just the past two years, technological advances in lower-cost aviation training devices (ATDs) that provide more training capabilities than ever before are helping drive increased interest and sales of such devices. According to Seattle-based one-G Simulation president and CEO Xylon Saltzman, the fidelity of flight training has dramatically increased even at the most basic level, (which would include BATDs - basic aviation training devices - as well as AATDs - advanced aviation training devices), while the cost of the technology has simultaneously decreased. The subsequent decrease in the overall flight training costs has also helped precipitate the demand, he stated.

The increased demand for ATDs is also being driven by flight schools, colleges and universities as they see a significant growth in their student populations that encourages them to purchase more training aids. Another factor contributing to the rise in the BATD and AATD market are the recent changes in FAA Part 61 and Part 141 rules that allow more student credit hours toward pilot licensing and ratings for time spent employing simulation-based devices for training.

Advanced Tech Expectations

But as sales grow, ATD manufacturers are also seeing that customers are coming to expect the latest evolving technologies incorporated into their newest products, with the added expectation that prices will drop, even as those new ATDs provide more training capabilities. They also know that flight schools and their younger students will be demanding such advances as well.

“What may have sufficed as a productive flight training tool five years ago is being nudged over by an ever-increasing desire for more realism, and that includes the VR-AR piece,” Saltzman noted. “But this also involves a lot of the work that we are doing with avionics simulation and the fidelity of our flight decks. I believe that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg as to the growth of this type of technology.”

According to Josh Harnagel, VP of Marketing for Redbird Flight Simulation, flight schools have come to expect much more from lower-cost devices; more aircraft choices, more avionics options, higher fidelity, and a wider range of capabilities.

“In some ways this is a product of our success, since we’ve shown what can be done with affordable simulation and the market responded positively,” Harnagel said. “Now they’re pushing us to advance and make the return on investment even more attractive.”

Harnagel also reported that flight schools are seeing a large influx of students pursuing a professional pilot career, which has helped drive the increase in ATD sales. Redbird has also seen a sizeable increase in the sales of its TD and TD2 BATDs to individual pilots, flying clubs, and pilot groups. They have found that the ability to maintain instrument recency with a desktop BATD due to a change in Part 61 rules is a game changer for a lot of pilots.

“The employment outlook for pilots is brighter than it has been in a long time, and this is increasing the demand for ATDs and flight training solutions in general,” Harnagel summarized. “We are also seeing a widespread acceptance by flight schools and instructors of the value of simulation in ab initio training, which is helping to drive demand for our devices.”

One of the oldest ATD providers and manufacturer of perhaps the most diverse line of training aids, Elite Simulation Solutions, is also experiencing considerable growth in its product sales. According to the company’s president and CEO John Dixon, the FAA’s increase in flying credits for simulation-based student training, coupled with higher fidelity in lower cost ATDs, have made them more attractive and resulted in increased sales.

“The biggest growth for us, however, has been in international and government (local through federal) sales,” Dixon said. “I have not yet seen evidence of a growing student population for helicopter flight training. The majority of sales are for our lower-cost AATD trainers. The flight fidelity is high, the cost is affordable, and the (reduced) footprint of these trainers is very accommodating.”

Another growth area for the company is in helicopter ATDs. “Helicopter simulation has matured significantly in the past 10 to 15 years as to aerodynamic fidelity, avionics and detailed real-world scenery,” Dixon pointed out. “This is to where high-quality yet affordable trainers are within the reach of the smaller flight schools, training institutions and within discretion spending of police departments, medevac, corporate and smaller flight detachments.”

He continued: “There are the two main reasons that demand for lower-cost helicopter trainers has been increasing. One is instructor/pilot acceptance. ELITE, for example, incorporates the same helicopter flight model in the smallest footprint trainers as is used in expensive full-cockpit trainers – for a mere fraction of the cost. The footprint of smaller trainers is also an attractive feature. Few customers have the space to accommodate full cockpits and dome projection systems. An open single-seat trainer using high-definition TV displays is an excellent presentation that takes up minimal space, is affordable and highly effective for training scenarios.”

VR for Flight Training

With the demand for the incorporation of new and emerging technologies into ATDs, manufacturers are investigating the potential of adding virtual and augmented reality into those devices, not just for the sake of doing so, but to help improve training and to lower training costs as well.

With all the major US military services now evaluating the performance of experimental VR and AR-enhanced ATDs for pilot training, working to incorporate those technologies into ATDs for civilian flight training devices seems a logical extension.

One-G already has a VR-based AATD on the market. Brazil-based VirtuaSim has a VR-based fixed-wing AATD undergoing that country’s regulatory certification process, with a customer anticipating delivery within 90 days after certification.

One-G first introduced its Torrence 44 AT (Augmented Training) platform at the Helicopter Association International 2018 Heli-Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada. The flight simulation training device is based on the Robinson 44 helicopter, and merges VR technology with the helicopter AATD. According to Saltzman, the addition of a VR headset provides the student with a 360-degree field of view, which increases pilot situational awareness and visual cueing, vital factors for VFR helicopter flight training.

“VR has exceptional applicability to rotorcraft operation training because of these factors,” Saltzman said. “The Torrence 44 is currently undergoing the FAA certification process, and the trainer is now past the proof-of-concept phase based on research being conducted by an independent research firm in Massachusetts. That study has been an incredible confirmation as to the effectiveness of VR technology for flight training. This gives us the confidence that VR technology can be applied to fixed-wing aircraft as well. There is no question that we will be seeing more of it.”

Virtuasim superimposes the virtual cockpit layer to the physical one, enabling natural interaction with cockpit controls with full tactile and force feedback for “full flight simulation capability.” Image credit: Virtuasim Simulation.
Virtuasim superimposes the virtual cockpit layer to the physical one, enabling natural interaction with cockpit controls with full tactile and force feedback for “full flight simulation capability.” Image credit: Virtuasim Simulation.

Virtuasim has developed a new Pilot Integrated Training (PIT) AATD that features a VR headset which projects 3D stereoscopic virtual aircraft cockpit instrument content data onto a base station physical touch-screen panel that employs haptic technology. The physical panel can be changed out to provide a reconfigurable capability for any fixed-wing aircraft type.

“We can train any aircraft type with the advantage of the student being able to experience tactile feedback,” said Mario Vasconcelos, the company’s Business Development manager. “The virtual cockpit levers projected onto the physical panel provide more realism than a conventional touchscreen. The HMD also provides a 360-degree view, which is not available on conventional AATDS. It can provide an outside-the-window view, and can simulate IFR conditions such as clouds, rain, night and day. The PIT system also provides theoretical knowledge with practical pilot training knowledge as well for the student.”

Virtuasim is working on a Piper Warrior VR AATD for a client, EPA Flight Training Center in southern Brazil, Vasconcelos said. The AATD is being evaluated for certification by the national civil aviation agency of Brazil (ANAC), with delivery to the customer 90 days after certification, he reported. The ATD manufacturer is also working to provide the VR AATD for a company in Portugal, but this company wants a fully virtual product without any physical panels.

AI, Pay-Per-Use & Other Innovations

While Harnagel said that he “loves VR” and Redbird has explored VR and AR technologies for ATDs, the company does not think that the technology is ready for use in a real product at this point. Instead, Redbird is providing new products that enhance current ATDs by taking advantages of other technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI).

“Most impactfully, we’ve launched a simulator-based, flight training application we call Guided Independent Flight Training, or GIFT,” Harnagel explained. “GIFT uses AI to provide in-simulation instruction on every maneuver required for a private pilot or an instrument rating in our ATDs. The student is given feedback and objective scoring that can be shared with his or her instructor and tracked over time. We think GIFT will help flight schools increase their student load without having to add more instructors, while maintaining a high standard of training.”

One-G is making use of cloud data storage and retrieval and internet portal technology for its Access Program, which allows qualified flight schools to integrate the company’s AATDs into their flight training curriculum on a pay-per-use basis. Under this program, a flight school will be shipped an AATD which automatically tracks all use of the simulator and reports it back to the company via the portal after a month’s time, Saltzman explained. If the device does not work out for the flight school, it can ship it back to one-G without making a purchase.

“This is a great testing ground for flight schools so they can explore the technology that is available to them without having to make a major purchase,” Saltzman emphasized. “The Access Program certainly has been a great success nationally. with a lot of opportunities globally as well.”

ELITE'S TH22 models the form, function and performance of the Robinson R22 piston helicopter. Image credit: Elite Simulation Solutions.
ELITE'S TH22 models the form, function and performance of the Robinson R22 piston helicopter. Image credit: Elite Simulation Solutions. 

One-G has also added its Self-Operated Learning Objectives (SOLO) program that utilizes the company’s internet portal. Students can learn on their own through SOLO training modules, with their performance being recorded and shared with instructors and flight school administrators so that they can provide oversight to that part of student training.

According to Dixon, Elite is employing new technologies to address what the company perceives as its greatest challenge – simulating the latest advances in avionics for both rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft. To address this challenge, the company is adding updated avionics systems GNS to GTN devices, and AHRS and VEMD-style instrumentation in the AATD category. He pointed out that Elite provides training devices for piston (single and dual control), single-engine turbine (single and dual control) and twin-turbine helicopters, as well as AATDs for numerous fixed-wing aircraft.

Will Demand Continue?

While the recent demand for lower-cost ATDs has become the highest in many years, the question is whether such a strong market trend will continue and for how long. The ATD leaders CAT talked with agree that this trend will continue for at least the near future.

“We see strong demand for ATDs and other affordable simulation products over the next 12 to 24 months,” Harnagel concluded. “Outside of macro-economic factors, we see the shortage of flight instructors as the most significant challenge facing the industry. This provides an opportunity for simulation and training technologies that maximize the efficiency of aviation training organizations.” 

Published in CAT issue 4/2019